Review of the Federal Bureau of Prisons' Disciplinary System

Report Number I-2004-008
September 2004


The Department of Justice's (Department) Office of the Inspector General (OIG) conducted this review to assess the Federal Bureau of Prisons' (BOP) disciplinary system. Specifically, we reviewed whether BOP employees properly reported misconduct; whether investigations were thorough; and whether disciplinary actions were reasonable, consistent, and timely. We examined data for BOP employee misconduct cases opened or closed in fiscal year (FY) 2003, reviewed files related to a sample of 85 randomly selected misconduct cases, interviewed BOP officials, and visited selected institutions. We also conducted e-mail surveys to collect views on the agency's disciplinary system from BOP deciding officials, investigators, and employees.

The BOP's disciplinary system is divided into two distinct phases: the investigative phase, when the BOP investigates alleged employee misconduct, and the adjudicative phase, when discipline is proposed and imposed for misconduct allegations that were sustained by the investigation. The BOP's Office of Internal Affairs (OIA) in the Executive Office of the Director oversees the investigative phase. OIA investigators, as well as investigators assigned to the institutions, conduct the investigations. The Labor Management Relations (LMR) branch in the Human Resources Management Division oversees the adjudicative phase.


We found that the investigative phase of the disciplinary process was thorough and the case files we reviewed were well documented. We also found no significant differences in how BOP treated employees of different races, genders, job series, or grade levels during the disciplinary process.

However, we identified deficiencies in the BOP's disciplinary system that prevent it from ensuring that disciplinary decisions are reasonable, consistent, and timely. We found the following deficiencies: the BOP does not require all cases with sustained allegations to be fully adjudicated; deciding officials often fail to document their reasons for mitigating disciplinary proposals; the independence of the investigative and adjudicative phases of the disciplinary process can be compromised because the Chief Executive Officers (CEOs)1 have a role in both phases; the BOP does not ensure that BOP employees receive similar penalties for similar infractions BOP-wide; the BOP does not have written timeliness standards for processing misconduct allegations; the BOP does not monitor the reasonableness, consistency, and timeliness of disciplinary decisions; and BOP employees do not report all employee misconduct. By correcting the issues identified above and detailed in the report, the BOP can better ensure that its disciplinary decisions are reasonable, consistent, and timely.

BOP investigations of employee misconduct appeared thorough.

In reviewing a random sample of 85 investigative case files, an OIG Special Agent concluded that the investigations appeared thorough and the files contained the information necessary to understand the actions taken and the conclusions reached during the investigative phase. Our surveys also indicated that the BOP's OIA investigators, deciding officials, and employees generally rated the investigative reports highly for their quality.

BOP disciplinary decisions sometimes did not appear to be reasonable.

Of 92 subjects with sustained allegations in our sample, the CEOs unilaterally took informal or no disciplinary action for 20 of these subjects charged with serious misconduct without fully adjudicating the cases or documenting their reasons for taking these actions. By bypassing the full adjudicative phase, the CEOs failed to involve other entities with review responsibilities. Given the serious nature of the sustained misconduct in these 20 cases, coupled with the minor penalties imposed and the absence of documented reasons for the decisions, the outcomes did not appear to be reasonable.

In their role as deciding officials, the CEOs mitigated the proposed discipline but failed to adequately explain the reasons for the mitigation in the decision letter for 36 of 92 subjects with sustained allegations. Both federal regulations and internal BOP guidelines state that deciding officials must provide reasons for mitigating penalties in the decision letter. Because of the lack of adequate documentation explaining why the proposed discipline was mitigated, the penalty imposed did not appear reasonable in relationship to the proposed discipline.

In addition, the CEOs can influence local investigative reports for cases in which they also will act as the deciding officials, thereby creating the potential for outcomes that are not reasonable. In other Department disciplinary systems we have reviewed, the deciding officials are not involved in the investigative phase. However, in the BOP, the CEOs have the dual responsibilities of reviewing and approving local investigations for misconduct cases in their institutions during the investigative phase and imposing discipline based on these investigations during the adjudicative phase. Because of the CEOs' dual responsibilities, the independence of the investigative and adjudicative phases, which helps to ensure that disciplinary outcomes are reasonable, can be compromised.

BOP guidance instructs CEOs to impose similar penalties for similar misconduct only at their current institution, which does not ensure that discipline is imposed consistently BOP-wide.

An equitable disciplinary system should ensure that employees receive substantially similar discipline for similar misconduct under similar circumstances. However, BOP guidance states that CEOs, when acting as deciding officials, need to be consistent only with their own prior decisions at the same facility. LMR staff also told us that imposing consistent discipline is only necessary for the current CEO at each facility because that is all that is required for imposed discipline to be deemed defensible if the subject appeals or grieves the decision to a third party. Consequently, two similarly situated subjects who committed similar misconduct under similar circumstances at the same institution could receive different penalties because the subjects had different CEOs. Under current BOP rules, the CEOs at each of the BOP's 113 institutions, 6 Regional Offices, 28 community corrections offices, 2 staff training centers, and 1 Central Office may impose different discipline for similar misconduct and circumstances.

BOP data did not indicate that the disciplinary process was affected by grade level, job series, gender, or race BOP-wide.

We analyzed BOP data to determine whether certain job and demographic characteristics of the population - job series, grade level, gender, or race - affected the disciplinary process. The data did not indicate that these characteristics were a factor in the disciplinary process. We also attempted to determine the consistency of discipline imposed BOP-wide for similar charges in our sample of 85 cases, but our sample did not include a sufficient number of cases with similar charges and circumstances to perform this type of consistency analysis.

The BOP did not consistently report, investigate, and adjudicate employee misconduct cases in a timely manner.

We found that the BOP did not report or process misconduct cases in a timely manner and that delays sometimes negatively affected the final discipline that was imposed. For example, our analysis showed that BOP management did not report 68 percent of serious misconduct allegations to the OIA within 24 hours, as required by BOP policy. The reporting time for these allegations averaged 16 days and, in one case, was 106 days. The OIA, in turn, did not report 23 percent of allegations to the OIG within the required time frames.

We also found that the BOP has not established written standards for the timely investigation and adjudication of employee misconduct. While officials in the OIA and the LMR provided us with informal time frames, they did not measure the timeliness of their respective processes against these standards even though they collected time-related data. Our analysis of the 85 case files showed that the average time for OIA investigators to complete their investigations was less than the OIA's informal time frame of 90 days. However, local investigators assigned to the institutions took an average of 103 days to complete the investigations, 43 days longer than the informal time frame of 60 days.

In those cases in our sample that were adjudicated, disciplinary action cases (suspensions of 14 days or less) exceeded the informal time frame established by the LMR by an average of 27 days and adverse action cases (suspensions of more than 14 days, demotions, or removals) exceeded the time frame by an average of 20 days. Because the BOP did not monitor the timeliness of a case as it proceeded through the disciplinary system, it was unable to identify systemic causes for these delays.

BOP employees did not report all employee misconduct as required.

In our e-mail survey of BOP employees, almost 92 percent of the respondents said that they had read the BOP's Standards of Employee Conduct and 96 percent said that they were aware of the BOP's requirements for reporting employee misconduct. However, 41 percent of the respondents who said that they had witnessed employee misconduct stated that they did not always report this misconduct to the proper authorities. Sixty-six percent of the respondents reported that they did not believe that their fellow employees always reported misconduct either.

Some BOP employees believed that the disciplinary system was not reasonable, consistent, or timely.

In our e-mail survey of a random sample of BOP employees, 74 percent of respondents who stated that they were aware of investigations that resulted in discipline believed that the discipline imposed was reasonable, while 26 percent found that the discipline imposed was not reasonable. In terms of consistency, almost 60 percent believed that employees were treated differently according to their job title or grade level. Forty-three percent believed that the gender or race of the subject affected the discipline imposed. BOP employees who commented that employees were treated differently generally stated that higher-graded staff, non-correctional officers, white staff, or males received more favorable treatment than other BOP employees. Regarding timeliness, approximately 43 percent did not believe that misconduct investigations were handled in a timely manner, and 34 percent believed that the adjudication of discipline was not timely. Several employees commented on the negative effect that untimely resolution of an allegation of misconduct has on an employee's ability to progress in his or her career, as well as on employee morale.


We make ten recommendations to help the BOP ensure that its disciplinary decisions are reasonable, consistent, and timely. The recommendations focus on ensuring that the investigative and adjudicative phases of the disciplinary system function independently and that sustained misconduct allegations are fully adjudicated; the reasons for mitigating discipline are adequately documented; BOP employees receive similar penalties for similar infractions BOP-wide; misconduct cases are investigated and adjudicated in a timely manner; and that the BOP develops controls to monitor disciplinary decisions for consistency throughout the BOP.

We recommend that the BOP:

  1. Reinforce the existing policy that BOP employees report allegations of employee misconduct to the proper authorities as required.

  2. Require that CEOs forward cases with sustained allegations through the full adjudicative phase.

  3. Ensure that when the deciding official mitigates the proposed discipline, the decision letter contains an adequate explanation of the reasons.

  4. Remove the CEOs from reviewing and approving investigative reports of employee misconduct for cases in which they will act as the deciding official by implementing an alternative review process that preserves the independence of the investigative and adjudicative phases.

  5. Reinforce the existing policy that all required documents be maintained in the disciplinary files.

  6. Develop procedures to ensure that discipline is imposed consistently BOP-wide, and review discipline for consistency across the agency periodically after these procedures are implemented.

  7. Reinforce the existing policy that CEOs report allegations of employee misconduct to the OIA within required time frames.

  8. Reinforce the existing policy that the OIA reports misconduct allegations to the OIG within required time frames.

  9. Establish written time guidelines for the investigative and adjudicative phases of the disciplinary system.

  10. Require that the BOP Program Review Division periodically review a sample of closed disciplinary case files to assess whether the disciplinary decisions were reasonable, consistent, and timely.

  1. According to BOP Program Statement 3420.09, Standards of Employee Conduct, the CEO is defined as the Warden at institutions, the Director at staff training centers, the Community Corrections Manager at community corrections offices, the Regional Director at Regional Offices, and the Assistant Director of each division at the Central Office.